In Conversation with Nouwen: The Life of the Beloved

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John  4:5-42

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Life for All

‘A spring of water gushing up to eternal life’.

The gospel is our spoken gift of faith.

Some will have seen the recent film ‘La La Land’, and recall the haunting soulful tune that knits the story together. That phrase of music is the refrain from which the story takes wing and to which it returns, moment by moment, as your life and soul life return, again and again, to the gospel, a spoken gift of faith, the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us. Spoken, sung.

Sung. Every bird sings faith, over the globe, through all time. Thurman loved penguins, odd and remote, and their dress, and their song. Listen. Along the Charles, in the spring, we make way for goslings and ducklings. Early in the summer mornings, out in the farmland where we live in the summer, the northeastern tip of Appalachia, and where we will be buried, where we are at home, at dawn a rooster. Two eagles—they too mate for life, as in Christian marriage—soaring–imagine their music. The owl at night. A swan song, a silver swan, who living had no note. The gospel is a bird in song, and all nature sings. Even if or when the preaching of the gospel by human imperfection abates, as it does threaten to do, birdsong will carry the tune. God can preach God’s gospel through birdsong.

Spoken. Derek Walcott, of Boston University, a Methodist: I seek, as climate seeks its style, to write verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight, cold as the curled wave, ordinary as a tumbler of island water.

John

Father Raymond Brown judged our passage today, John 4, to be the loveliest, finest narrative in the Fourth Gospel. The woman at the well, the Samaritan woman, meets Jesus and meets us in conversation. She is the quintessential conversationalist.

And what a wonder is there in the faintest conversation, let alone this dominical discussion! Ours today, from John 4, is holy, telling conversation, full of the unexpected, full of surprise, full of the utterly personal, full of revelation, full of boundary breaking courage, full of what is saving, healthy, lasting, meaningful, real, and good. Conversation thrives when you know your content, your work, and your audience. There is a mystery lurking under the disarming surface of the simplest conversation. My friend says her favorite two words are ‘awe’ and ‘conversation’. We could add that the two are not very far removed, or apart from each other.

It may have been that the community which gave birth to the Gospel of John included some Samaritans. This would explain the prominence of this long, intricate passage, devoted to the conversation of Jesus with a Samaritan woman. The Samaritans were outsiders. Here, one of their own takes center stage. In our time when those outside—immigrants, refugees, the poor, the different, the other—are steadily subjected to heightened measures of exclusion, we benefit from reminders, like this from John 4, that we are called as people of faith, called as Christian people, to care, succor, attention and protection of the ‘least’ among us. The larger question, and it is very much an open question, is whether the humiliation spreading out right now through civil society and culture–wherein inherited, precious forms of civil society are daily shredded with a gratuitous cruelty–coming now to us over the next decade, will chasten us, will humble us, will in that way strengthen us by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. He it is, today, who announces His own presence, and Lordship, in the course of a meandering conversation: I am He, the One who is speaking to you…A spring of water gushing up to eternal life

Lenten Conversation

Throughout the year 2017, at Marsh Chapel, we are engaged in ministry with attention to conversation. Our Summer National Preacher Series will engage in conversation about new directions in discipleship. Our Lenten Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with Henri Nouwen. Over the past decade, Lent by Lent, we have identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition. For the next decade, we turn to the Catholic tradition. Over the next decade, beginning this Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, will turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition. We began March 5 with Henri Nouwen, and Sacrament, continuing last week with Nouwen and Reaching Out. Today, Nouwen and the Life of the Beloved.

Nouwen (from the ‘Nouwen Society’)

“The internationally renowned priest and author, respected professor and beloved pastor Henri Nouwen wrote over 40 books on the spiritual life. He corresponded regularly in English, Dutch, German, French and Spanish with hundreds of friends and reached out to thousands through his Eucharistic celebrations, lectures and retreats. Since his death in 1996, ever-increasing numbers of readers, writers, teachers and seekers have been guided by his literary legacy. Nouwen’s books have sold over 8 million copies and been published in over 28 languages.

Born in Holland, 1932, Nouwen felt called to the priesthood at a very young age. He was ordained in 1957 as a diocesan priest and studied psychology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. In 1964 he moved to the United States to study at the Menninger Clinic. He went on to teach at the University of Notre Dame, and the Divinity Schools of Yale and Harvard. For several months during the 1970s, Nouwen lived and worked with the Trappist monks in the Abbey of the Genesee, and in the early 1980s he lived with the poor in Peru. In 1985 he was called to join L’Arche in Trosly, France, the first of over 100 communities founded by Jean Vanier where people with developmental disabilities live with assistants. A year later Nouwen came to make his home at L’Arche Daybreak near Toronto, Canada. He died suddenly on September 21st, 1996, in Holland and is buried in Richmond Hill, Ontario.”

Nouwen believed that what is most personal is most universal; he wrote, “By giving words to these intimate experiences I can make my life available to others.”

Servants of God

Nouwen dedicated his life to the practice of genuine conversation, genuine faithfulness. He eschewed the false formal and prized the personal in piety. A story, from the same period, from Charles Rice at Drew, Nouwen would hae loved. A few years ago Rice spoke about the servant of the servants of God. He told about an Easter when he was in Greece. He sat in the Orthodox church and watched the faithful in devotions. There was a great glassed icon of Christ, to which, following prayers, women and men would move, then kneel, then as they rose they kissed the glassed icon. Every so often a woman dressed in black would emerge from the shadows with some cleanser, or windex, and a cloth and –psh, psh—would clean the image, making it clear again. Washing clean the image again, and freeing it from so much encrusted piety. And he had a revelation about service and power and authority and leadership. As he watched the woman in black cleaning the icon, he realized that this was what his ministry was meant to be. A daily washing away from the face of Christ all that obscured, all that distorted, all that blocked others from seeing his truth, goodness and beauty. Including a lot of piety.

Life of the Beloved

Years ago, by accident, Nouwen met a man named Fred, a journalist who wanted to write a novel.  (We had a saying in our family, when intrusive questions arose; ‘Are you a journalist or writing a book?’)  Well, Fred was the former and hoping to do the latter.  But he feared a shift in vocation, for all the usual suspect reasons.  Henri though persisted in encouraging the man to leave his job and write his book.  He went out of his way.  Nouwen procured him a grant to do so!  So the man entered a new season of vocational discernment, and though he never finished the novel, he did find a deeper level of living, a sense of meaning, and, in the bargain, a great friend in Nouwen.

We might pause to wonder a bit about our callings.  Is this your final resting place in vocation—where you are now I mean?  You have heard some sort of call, and heeded, or you would not be where you are.  But what about the second call?  Is there a knocking at your spiritual door, asking you to consider a second call, another call?  Fred was a good journalist, but he heard a second call, to write, and in hearing, and in heeding, though not in his case in succeeding, he found himself closer to his own most self.  Life is a series of invitations, and a process of discernment. We might pause right now, in front of God and everybody, to wonder about our callings.

Last year at commencement we had a speaker who told about a second call.  Not all commencement addresses need or even deserve remembrance.  But it had a diamond embedded in it, a treasure buried in a field.  The speaker graduated from BU as an actress and went to La La Land.  She did what aspiring actors do.  She waited tables.  For a year.  And another.  And a third.  Then she got a job, part time, on the business side of show business.  You know what?  She liked it.  And it liked her.  Then she said:  “I looked at my acting career lived out in waiting tables, and I made a decision.  I decided my calling was to something else.  I decided to (here is the gem) EDIT MY DREAMS.”  She decided to edit her dreams.  So Nina Tassler, waitress, became the head of CBS entertainment. Yes.  Sometimes a second call comes along and invites you to edit your dreams.

Henri Nouwen invited Fred to edit his dreams.  And he did.  Then Fred invited Henri to edit his dreams, in this way.  He asked Nouwen to write a simple book about the spiritual life in a secular world, a book for ordinary people, not academics, ordinary people, not clergy, ordinary people, not even religious people.  This took Nouwen out of his comfort zone, but out of that zone he went.  He wrote a book, The Life of the Beloved.

Our Gospel today, John 4, has a radiance of love within it, as does Nouwen’s book.  Here, in brief, is what Nouwen wrote, this esteemed Roman Catholic theologian, this Yale academic, this profoundly erudite priest.  It is portable, what he wrote.  You can carry it home after the sermon.  You are beloved!  You are loved.  God loves, and loves you.  And you need not do anything to prove it, to earn it, to achieve it, to deserve it.  You:  beloved.  That is, in a single word, the life of the spirit.  Beloved.

But of course Nouwen went on to develop this theme, the trails and traces of the spirit in the single word.  He put together a quadrilateral, what we can call the love quartet today.  First, wrote Nouwen, to become beloved, we need to acknowledge that we are ‘taken’.  Chosen.  Wanted.  And grateful for it!  Second, to become beloved, we want to acknowledge that we are ‘blessed’.  You are precious in God’s sight, blessed, beloved.  As you are, not as you might be later on.  Right now, as you are right now.  You claim your blessing through the practice of prayer and through attention to presence.  My friend says her two favorite words are conversation and awe.  Well.  There.  Memorize a prayer or three (The Lord’s Prayer, Wesley’s Table Graces, the Prayer of Assisi).  Third, to live as beloved we want to acknowledge our brokenness. “Each human being suffers in a way no other human being suffers.” (87)  It will not do to repress our sadness, our resentment, our fear, our anger. No.  We are human, beloved human beings, and so are honest about our fractures.  Nouwen then wrote about AIDS, a crucial subject in that time (1992).  To heal we have to step toward our pain.  Here we can all learn from the 12 step programs, as long as we realize that there are many ways to be addicted that can have nothing to do with substances.  You might be surprised to know that Nouwen’s most personal example was his grief at the death of Leonard Bernstein.  Fourth, we are given, as beloved ones.  We are loved, but not just for our own sakes.  As Huston Smith—similarly an academic, similarly a theologian though a Methodist, similarly a cleric—put it, thinking perhaps of his parents who were missionaries in China:  ‘we are in good hands, and so it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens’.   When we enjoy others, and with joy give ourselves to others, and engage in enjoyment among others, then, in reality, we are given, because we are giving.  You only truly have what you give away.  Starting—and ending—with your time.  Here Nouwen concludes, and rightly, by drawing us toward our own death, and the way we give of ourselves not just living but dying.  (You remember my OOPS advice, as we prepare for the end of life:  obituary, order of worship, photograph, special papers.) But Nouwen means something more:  ‘the spirit of love once freed from our mortal bodies will blow where it wills’. (125).  Chosen, Blessed, Broken, Given. “Eternal Life is the full revelation of what we have been and have lived all along” (137).

By grace we too, you and I, have been chosen and set in time and space, to live in faith. By grace we too, you and I have been blessed, sometimes with happiness and sometimes with loss, sometimes with fulfillment and sometimes with unrequited love. By grace, we too, you and I, in honesty, in confession, must add, we have been broken, our brokenness best sung maybe by Leonard Cohen—ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in…forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in…there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in…that’s how the light gets in. By grace we too, you and I have been given, to be gifts and become givers, to choose, tomorrow, one pure act of kindness, to imagine it, plan it, pray over it, do it, and watch it recede in the rear view window.

In the student union, Thursday, a young pianist, of limited ability, but of great heart, played a tune, the haunting soulful tune you may have heard, remembered, from a current film. That phrase of music is the refrain from which the story takes wing and to which it returns, moment by moment, as your life and soul life return, again and again, to the gospel, a spoken gift of faith, the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.

A spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

 

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